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A Biographical and Critical Study 



The Eichelberger Book Company 
baltimore, md. 

Copyright, 1911, by 


/ dedicate this hook 

to the memory of 

my brother 

Thomas Page Wroth 


There needs no apology for writing as fully 
as the material available will allow the life of 
that American author whose works for the 
first half of the nineteenth century were more 
frequently reprinted and more widely distrib- 
uted and read than those of any other native 
writer during the same period. Mason Locke 
Weems published his first pamphlet in 1792, 
and in 1800 he brought out his Life of Wash- 
ington, his best known contribution to the lit- 
erature of his period. From this date until 
the Civil War, his works were published and 
republished with a frequency that has a paral- 
lel only in the many issues of the modern best 
sellers, a marked divergence, however, lying 
in the circumstance that in the case of the lat- 
ter the necessity for republication generally 
dies with the same year that sees their first issue. 
Duyckinck ' calls Weems the " Livy of the 

^ Duyckinck, G. L., Cyclopaedia of American Literature. 
2V. N. Y. 1855. 


common people," but this designation errs in 
its exclusiveness, for he was nearly as much 
appreciated by the upper classes of society as 
by the mechanic and the ploughboy. Per- 
haps the most obvious, although not the most 
important, claim that he has to our attention 
is the fact that upon his authority rests the 
best known of American hero tales — the story 
of George Washington and the Cherry Tree. 
His life has never been written with any re- 
gard for accuracy and fullness, and this is an 
attempt to do so within the limits imposed by 
a seemingly impenetrable veil which covers 
many of the years of his life and many of his 
actions and motives. 

The absence of the vagabond element from 
the lives of the masters of American literature 
distresses many most properly brought up per- 
sons. Whitman allowed his natural bent in 
that direction to become an artificial cult of 
the unconventional, with the result that he be- 
came in a fashion the most conventional of 
men. Poe had it almost alone of those whose 
feet are on the summits. The rest of them 


have been for the greater part quiet, scholarly 
men in whom the high lights are dulled or 
quite obscured by the library dust which en- 
velopes them. The heart that thrills at the 
thought of Marlowe brawling in a London 
tavern, or of Villon raking the streets of 
Paris with his " score of loyal cut-throats," 
i*esents the absence of the vagabond, or even 
the merely unconventional, element from the 
American Parnassus. On the lower slopes of 
the classic mount, however, there are found 
certain ones of this less formal type, and 
Mason Locke Weems is of the company. 

For thirty years there was no more familiar 
figure on the roads of the Southern States 
than this book peddler and author who, pro- 
vided gipsy-like with horse and wagon, his 
wares and his fiddle, travelled his long route 
year after year, sleeping in wayside inn, farm- 
house or forest, fiddling, writing, selling 
books, living in the open and learning some 
new road lore, field lore or wisdom of the 
woods with each day that passed. He makes a 
bit of color in an oftentimes dreary landscape. 


It would be difficult for the author to men- 
tion by name all of those who have been of 
service to him In the preparation of this book. 
It must be sufficient that he acknowledge with 
gratitude help from many persons In different 
parts of this country and England, naming 
only those three whose assistance was of such 
a nature that It could not pass unmarked. 
These are Miss Elizabeth Chew Williams, of 
Baltimore, a great-great niece of Parson 
Weems; Mr. Walter B. Norrls, of the teach- 
ing staff at the United States Naval Academy, 
and the late Mr. Richard D. Fisher, of Balti- 
more, whose contribution was none the less 
valuable In that It consisted chiefly of en- 
couragement when that was most needed. 



Mason Locke Weems was born October i , 
1759, at Marshes Seat/" the family home- 
stead near Herring Creek In Anne Arundel 
County, Maryland. He was one of the 
younger of the nineteen children of David 
Weems, the chief progenitor of the family In 
America. This David, his brother James and 
his sister WUlIamlna, were the children of a 
younger brother of David,' third Earl of 
Wemyss, the representative of a family which 

*" In the will of David Weems, the name of the plantation 
is given as above, " Marshes Seat." In the Rent Rolls of 
Anne Arundel County it is likewise so called. It is prob- 
able that as time went on the name came to be carelessly 
rendered as " Marshall Seat," for this is how the later gen- 
erations of the family pronounce and spell it. 

'As is the case with many early American families 
there is some uncertainty in the identification of the emi- 
grant ancestor, but the relationship as given in the text is 
said to be correct by H. H. Bellas, Esq., in his MSS. notes 
on the Weems or Wemyss family, in possession of Miss 
Harriet Reynolds, Bradshaw, Md. 


traced its ancestry to the Macduff whom 
Shakespeare has made memorable in his great 
tragedy. Williamina Wemyss ^ married Will- 
iam Moore, Esq., of Moore Hall, Pennsyl- 
vania, and became the mother of a long line 
of Moores, Cadwaladers, Goldsboroughs, 
Ridgeleys and Smiths. Her daughter, Re- 
becca Moore, married Dr. William Smith, a 
" father " of the Episcopal Church in Amer- 
ica, and as Provost of the College of Philadel- 
phia, eminent among the learned men of his 

David Weems (the Maryland branch of 
the family soon dropped the ancient spelling 
of the name) was resident in Maryland cer- 
tainly as early as 1729, for in that year the 
farm upon which he is living is bequeathed 
him in the will of his uncle. Dr. WiUiam 
Locke,* a familiar name in the local annals 

^See Life of Rev. V^illiam Smith, D. D. By Horace 
Wemyss Smith. 

*Dr. William Locke is said to have been the maternal 
uncle of the Weems children for whom he provided. His 
will, in which he speaks of them as " cousins," is to be 
found in Book 20, Liber CC3, Folio 480, Office Registrar 
of Wills, Anne Arundel County, Annapolis, Md. 


of Anne Arundel County. Family tradition 
says that Dr. Locke brought David, James 
and Williamina to America in their childhood 
and brought them up in his house. However 
this may be it is certain that he was exceed- 
ingly generous to them in the distribution of 
his property at his death in 1732. 

In 1742/ ten years after the death of Dr. 
Locke, the Registrar of St. James' Parish, 
Anne Arundel County, records in bad spelling 
and worse English that the rector of All 
Saints' Parish, Calvert County, married by 
license David Weems and '' Mrs. Easter 
Hill." ' One finds this lady to be Hester, 
daughter of Abell and Susannah Hill, born in 
St. James' Parish in 17 17. It is from the 
nineteen children of David and Hester Weems 
that are descended the greater part of those 
who to-day bear the name in all parts of the 

° Parish Register of St. James Parish, Anne Arundel 
County, in Maryland Diocesan Library, Baltimore, or copy 
in Maryland Historical Society Library, Baltimore. 

® It was David, the son of these two, who married Mar- 
garet Harrison, not the elder, as is often stated. 


There is a scant supply of facts relating to 
the boyhood of Mason Locke Weems, for, 
with the exception of one or two incidents 
of doubtful authenticity, the whole of his 
early life is an unknown period in his history. 
We know, however, from that delightful 
storehouse of gossip about people, places and 
things. Bishop Meade's Old Churches, Min- 
isters and Families of Virginia,^ that he was 
at one time an inmate of the house of a Mr. 
Jenifer of Charles County, and it is likely that 
this was the well-known Daniel of St. Thomas 
Jenifer, one of that group of sturdy states- 
men and patriots which the Revolution 
brought out in Maryland. If this surmise is 
correct, the source of the glowing patriotism 
of the author of the Life of Washington is 
clear. Weems, indeed, was one of the ear- 
liest of those whom we have come in later 
years to designate as " Jingoes.'' 

Happily enough, the single incident of his 
boyhood which rests upon good traditional 

' Meade, William, Old churches, ministers and families 
of Virginia. 2 v. Phila., 1857. Vol. 2, p. 234 et supra. 


authority is one that bears witness to the early 
formation of a benevolence of character 
which marked him throughout his later years. 
Curious as to the meaning of a series of 
nightly absences, members of the Jenifer fam- 
ily followed him upon one of his regular ex- 
cursions into the surrounding forest. Coming 
after some time to a tumble-down shanty, 
they were astonished to find him within, the 
center of a group of poor children of the 
neighborhood to whom he was imparting the 
rudiments of common learning. Weems' 
sympathy and patience with the poor and ig- 
norant is always a beautiful trait in his char- 

With a few more to his credit, this anec- 
dote is told of him by Bishop Meade in order 
to offset the impression made by the further 
account which he gives of this lad grown to 
manhood. Bishop Meade was an austere, 
outspoken man, and the picture of orthodoxy 
in manners and religion. Influenced by the 
absence of a saving elasticity in the manners 
of his times, he was unable to allow the good 


side of Parson Weems to make atonement 
for those of his qualities which he felt to be 
bad. In estimating Weems' character, he was 
compelled to put In the balance every ounce 
of Christian charity which he possessed, and 
In spite of his obvious effort for fair judg- 
ment, or perhaps because of It, he succeeds 
only In leaving us a negatively damning char- 
acterization of one whom he was certain to 
misunderstand. A generation less In bonds 
to conventionality and seeing events In a longer 
perspective, studies the life of Weems with 
a more generous appreciation. 

At an early age,^ probably sometime In his 
fourteenth year, Weems went abroad to study 
medicine, and for three years this purpose 
held him In London and at the University of 
Edinburgh. What use he made In later life 
of his acquirements In medicine Is absolutely 
unknown. He Is spoken of " as Dr. Mason 

* Allen, the Rev. Ethan, MSS. history of the church in 
Maryland. 4 v. in the Maryland Diocesan Library, Balti- 
more. (Hereafter referred to as the Allen MSS.) 

" Calendar of Franklin papers, No. XXXVIII, 96, Vol. II, 
p. 460. 


Weems many years afterwards, and In certain 
notes ^" which the writer has examined, It Is 
stated that he served for some months as 
surgeon on a British ship of war. If this be 
so It was doubtless his aversion to service 
against the struggling colonies which brought 
him home to America In 1776, for It Is gen- 
erally believed and stated that he spent the 
period of the Revolution In this country. The 
absence of all clue to his movements, how- 
ever, during the years of war Is the despair of 
those who have tried to bring the events of 
his life Into orderly sequence. A plausible as- 
sumption Is that he was engaged In the prac- 
tice of his profession during these years, but 
It Is an assumption only. 

He next appears to view In the year 1782, 
at which time he returned to England to ob- 
tain Holy Orders from the Anglican bishops. 
Probably because peace had not been de- 
clared between England and America, he was 
forced to travel by way of France, for In 
March, 1782, the consul at Nantes writes to 

'"Allen MSS. 


Franklin " for a passport for Dr. Mason 
Weems ""^ and Mr. Manifold, who go to Eng- 
land on business. 

" Calendar of Franklin papers. See note 9, above. 

"° It is this use of the title " Doctor " which makes it seem 
probable that Weems, during the past few years, had been 
in a sufficiently active practise of medicine to become gen- 
erally known as a physician. Of course, the term would 
not have been applied for any other reason. Even if his 
intention of taking Holy Orders had been declared, he 
would not have been called " Doctor " before ordination. 



The story '' of Weems' efforts to obtain 
ordination in England forms an interesting 
chapter in the history of the American Epis- 
copal Church. At the close of the Revolu- 
tion, the idea of the English Church existing 
abroad other than as a mission conducted by 
Englishmen was unthought of in Britain save 
as a theory which was of doubtful practica- 
bility. There were no bishops in America, 
and it was clearly seen there that if the Ameri- 
can Church was ever to be anything but a 
mission dependent upon the Church of Eng- 
land, it was necessary that it should be al- 
lowed a separate episcopate and an individual 
corporate existence. Recognizing this fact, 

" Bishop White, Memoirs of the church ; Hawkins, Mis- 
sions of the Church of England ; Cross^ Anglican episcopate 
and the American colonies; McMaster, History of the 
people of the U. S. ; Foster, Century of American diplo- 
macy; Franklin correspondence; Adams correspondence, 


the clergy in America in the colonial era had 
appealed more than once for a bishop of their 
own, and while Weems at this later day was 
striving for the lower orders of the ministry, 
the Rev. Samuel Seabury of Connecticut was 
in England begging for consecration to the 
episcopate. Both of them were met by the 
unanswerable reply that the law of the realm 
permitted ordination only to those who could 
take the Oath of Allegiance to the Crown of 
England. It was necessary to wait, but in 
the meantime there were divers agencies work- 
ing in the interests of the struggling church 
in America. 

Associated with Weems in his appeal for 
ordination was Edward Gantt, Jr., a young 
Marylander who afterwards became prom- 
inent in the church of his native State. Not 
daunted by the refusal of the bishops to admit 
them to orders, they petitioned Benjamin 
Franklin," then at the French court, for ad- 
vice in their extremity, but that usually saga- 
cious man was unable to help them. Indeed, 

" Franklin correspondence, any edition. 


his letter of reply contained distinctly poor 
counsel, and showed that he held a very super- 
ficial conception of the requirements of the 
situation. He suggested that the candidates 
should make shift to do without regular ordi- 
nation as they should be forced to do anyhow 
if the British Isles were to be swept away 
by the waves of the Atlantic. For a man of 
his greatness, this letter " seems peculiarly in- 
ept, although it is written in his usual shrewd 
and entertaining fashion. It is evident that 
Apostolic Succession and Historic Episcopate 
were mere scholastic terms to the great Frank- 
lin, churchman though he was. 

" Here follows an abbreviated form of the last part of 
Franklin's letter: "If the British Isles were sunk in the 
Sea (and the Surface of this Globe has suffered greater 
changes), you would probably take some such method as 
this; and if they persist in denying you ordination, 'tis the 
same thing. An hundred years hence, when people are 
more enlightened, it will be wondered at, that Men in 
America, qualified by their Learning and Piety to pray for 
and instruct their Neighbors, should not be permitted to do 
it till they had made a Voyage of six thousand Miles out 
and home, to ask leave of a cross old Gentleman at Canter- 
bury; who seems by your Account to have as little Regard 
for the Souls of the People of Maryland, as King W^illiam's 


A more practical view of the situation was 
taken by John Adams '' at The Hague, for 
he spoke of the dilemma of his young country- 
men to the Danish minister in Holland with 
the result that in April, 1784, an offer was 
made by the Bishops of the Danish Church 
to ordain them by their rite. Adams com- 
municated this offer to Congress and copies 
of the correspondence were sent to the gov- 
ernors of all the States. Neither in the case 
of Weems nor of any other American candi- 
date, however, was the offer accepted. It is 
probable that uncertainty as to how the Eng- 
lish Church would pronounce upon the valid- 
Attorney-General, Seymour, had for those of Virginia. 
The Reverend Commissary Blair (applied to Seymour to 
draw up the charter of a college which by the Queen's 
grace was to be built in Virginia. Seymour opposed the 
money grant, and in the argument that ensued between him 
and Blair, the latter said) that the People of Virginia had 
souls to be saved as well as the People of England." (The 
Attorney-General thus replied) "Souls!" says he, "damn 
your Souls. Make Tobacco." 

This letter is dated Passy, July i8, 1784, and it is written 
in reply to one from Weems and Gantt received two days 

^^ Bishop White, Memoirs of the church, p. 327 et supra. 


Ity of Danish orders made the candidates 
wary of the substitute proposed by Adams, 
and, moreover, It was felt that ultimately their 
disabilities would be removed by act of Par- 

In the hope of liberal action by Parliament, 
the American candidates were not disap- 
pointed, for on August 13, 1784, an Enabling 
Act " was passed which made possible the 
omission of the '' Oath " In the ordination of 
persons Intending to serve In foreign lands. 
And, finally, after a residence abroad for the 
purpose, of two years and a half, Weems, 
on September 5, 1784, was ordained to the 
diaconate by the Bishop of Chester, acting 
under the Bishop of London, In the Duke 
Street Chapel, Westminster, and one week 
later, the Archbishop of Canterbury admitted 
him to the priesthood." Among those or- 
dained with him was his compatriot, Edward 
Gantt, Jr. The companion measure, provld- 

" Statutes at Large, 24 George III, Cap. XXXV. 

" Certificates in the Maryland Diocesan Library, Balti- 
more, in keeping of the Records Committee of the Diocese 
of Maryland. 


ing for the consecration of bishops under the 
same conditions, failed of passage through 
Parliament, and it was nearly three years be- 
fore Bishop White of Pennsylvania was con- 
secrated by the English prelates. In the 
meantime, Dr. Seabury had gone to Scotland, 
where in November, 1784, he was elevated 
to the higher office by bishops of the Episco- 
pal Church in that country. 

In November, 1784, was chartered the 
" Corporation for the Relief of the Widows 
and Children of the Clergy of the Protestant 
Episcopal Church in Maryland," '' and in the 
list of incorporators appear the names of 
Mason Locke Weems and Edward Gantt, Jr., 
their first appearance in any list of clergy of 
the Diocese. Sometime in the same year, 
Weems became rector of All Hallows' Parish 
in Anne Arundel County. 

The most difficult part in the preparation 
of the life of Parson Weems has been the 
determination of the date and circumstances 

^^Acts of Maryland Assembly. November, 1784. 


of his ordination. In 1857, Bishop Meade" 
wrote these words: "... a doubt has been 
entertained whether he ever was ordained a 
minister of our Church, yet we will take that 
for granted, and ascribe to him all that is 
justly due." In the second issue of 1872, he 
changes the two latter clauses of his sentence 
to read simply, " yet I have ascertained that 
to be a fact." Unfortunately, the aspersion 
of the first Issue was only too readily taken 
up, and that by persons not willing to " ascribe 
... all that Is justly due," for since that time 
there have appeared numerous articles In 
which either a similar tone was evident or In 
which the author denied flatly the fact of 
Weems' ordination, making him out a rogue 
of the first order. The only reason ever 
given by the writers for their remarkable po- 
sition Is that his name does not appear in any 
list of clergy ordained by the Bishop of Lon- 
don. The possibility of his having derived 
his orders from another bishop seems never 

" Meade, Old churches, etc. 


to have been taken into account. After cor- 
respondence and research in this country and 
Europe, covering a period of nearly two years, 
the writer learned from a letter in the South- 
ern Churchman^'' written in reply to one of 
his own, that a descendant of Edward Gantt, 
Jr., had in his possession the ordination cer- 
tificates given to his ancestor by the Bishop 
of Chester and the Archbishop of Canterbury. 
Communication was entered into with the 
proper authorities in England with the result 
that the certificates of Weems' ordination 
were secured and placed on record in the 
Maryland Diocesan Library. It has been a 
particular pleasure to determine finally the 
circumstances of Weems' ordination, for al- 
though one must allow him faults, yet it is 
diflicult to believe him capable of infamy as 
gross as would have been the false repre- 
sentation of himself as a priest in the Church 
of God. 

^ Southern Churchman, Richmond, Va. May 21, 1910, 
p. 20. 



For the eight years following upon the re- 
turn of Parson Weems '^ to Maryland after 
securing ordination, he was one of the most 
active clergymen in the diocese. He was rec- 
tor of All Hallows' Parish from 1784 until 
1789, and during this incumbency he con- 
ducted in the neighborhood a school for girls. 
He seems to have held no charge during part 
of the year 1790, although his name con- 
tinues on the clergy list of the Diocese. He 
was rector of Westminster Parish in the same 
county for the two years 1791 and 1792, and 
he was several times elected to membership 
on the Superintending Committee for the 
Western Shore, a committee which in the 
lack of a bishop exercised a general super- 
vision of the parishes west of the Chesapeake. 
It is clear from this that he made his person- 

^ Journals of Convention of the Diocese of Maryland, 
Allen MSS., etc. 


allty felt to some degree by his brethren of 
the clergy. 

Fortunately for those who are Interested in 
Weems, we are able to know more of his 
life as a parish priest in the Maryland of 
1785 than the bare outline of the years and 
places of his service. His neighbor in Prince 
George County, the Rev. William Duke,''' was 
one of those persons who in spite of the com- 
parative obscurity of their lives and the un- 
importance of their goings and comings, yet 
deem it desirable to keep a record of the 
events of each day as it passes. Early in life 
Duke had been a Methodist preacher, and 
inspired perhaps, as many of his brethren 

^William Duke, born 1757, Baltimore County; died 
1843, Elkton, Md. Rector of six Maryland parishes. Pro- 
fessor of Languages in St. John's College, Annapolis; 
Principal of Charlotte Hall School; Academy in Elkton; 
Convention Preacher ; member of Standing Committee of 
Diocese; published Hymns, an excellent apologetic, a valu- 
able treatise on Maryland religious history and contributed 
to several religious periodicals. For full accounts of his 
interesting life, see a sketch by Dr. Ethan Allen in Sprague's 
Annals of the American pulpit (Episcopal), and an article 
by the present writer in the Church Standard for June 20, 


were, by the example of John Wesley, he kept 
for fifty years a diary of his doings and 
thinkings. The Duke Diary has been saved 
from the usual mischances of time and care- 
lessness to be accorded an honored old age 
in the Maryland Diocesan Library. It is a 
rarely interesting document, both from a hu- 
man and an historical standpoint, and it has 
been the fortune of the present writer to find 
in the course of its badly written, yellowed 
pages sixty-five places in which Is mentioned 
the name of Parson Weems. Many of the 
references to him are of neither Interest nor 
Importance, but an equal number of them are 
valuable in that they bring us into touch with 
the sometime rector of All Hallows' and 
Westminster parishes during one of the pe- 
riods of his life about which the least is 

The first mention of Weems found In the 
Duke " Diary " Is this that follows: '' Jan. 
5, 1787. Crossed South River with difficulty 
the wind blowing very hard and as I passed 
Mr. W 's Church met him coming out. 


It seems he preaches every other Friday night 
for the Benefit of the Negroes. A charitable 
Attempt. I hope it will be successful. At 
his Request I promised to preach for him on 
the Sunday following." 

It is to be feared that in this day the Chris- 
tian bodies were generally careless of the ne- 
groes, and it is a gem in the crown of Parson 
Weems that here and always he had the spir- 
itual welfare of the neglected race at heart. 
Ten years after this the garrulous John Davis 
records in his Travels in America a conversa- 
tion which he held with Weems on this very 
subject of his ministry to the blacks. He 
gives this sentence as from the lips of Weems : 
" Oh, it is sweet preaching, when people are 
desirous of hearing. Sweet feeding the flock 
of Christ, when they have so good an appe- 
tite." Somewhere, somehow, and in such a 
degree as fully to atone for other and less 
pleasing characteristics, Weems had acquired 
affection for and interest in the poor and 
ignorant of all races, taking always the re- 
jected of other men to his heart and laboring 


for their uplift with large patience and char- 
ity. Even William Duke, godly and untiring 
In good works though he was, described the 
holding of a special service for negroes as a 
" charitable Attempt," and Implied In the 
next sentence a doubt as to Its success. 

According to promise, Duke came on the 
following Sunday to preach at All Hallows', 
one of the ancient parishes of Maryland. He 
stayed for several days thereafter with Its 
rector, and In the course of his visit they rode 
from house to house In the neighborhood pay- 
ing social calls on the parishioners. Duke, 
nursed In religion by Wesley, Coke and Straw- 
bridge, was averse to the point of crabbed- 
ness to the card playing, wine drinking and 
dancing which went on. Innocently enough 
generally. In the Maryland country houses, but 
we gather that Weems was either more liberal 
In his views or that he was more adaptable to 
circumstances. When the former on one oc- 
casion condemns even the friendly game of 
cards, he writes In the " Diary " that night: 
" I was so unfortunate as to be singular in 


that Sentiment/' and on the following morn- 
ing he '' had some serious conversation with 

Mr. W on the Subject of Amusement — 

We agreed in general. But I could not yield 
to the maxim of assuming the Complexion 
and entering into the Spirit of whatever Com- 
pany you happen in — y 

These few days which Duke spent with 
Weems are in all, save details, the type of 
many later visits of one to the other of them. 
They were unmarried and nearly of the same 
age, and in spite of a wide difference in tem- 
perament, they had in common many tastes 
besides the interests of their profession. We 
find them on sufficiently friendly terms for 
Duke to reprove Weems for " a fault which 
he observed in his character," and for any- 
thing that is said to the contrary Weems took 
the reproof in good part. Throughout the 
" Diary " are entries of this sort: " A good 
deal of talk with Weems. He drives Jehu- 
like," or, " Mr. Weems called on me. I took 
a long and agreeable walk with him." Duke 
was strict in life and doctrine, a self-taught 


scholar, and withal a man of great good sense. 
In later years he attained a position of no 
little influence in the Diocese, and although 
he never had a parish of any especial Im- 
portance, he was the familiar friend and cor- 
respondent of two bishops and of the leading 
clergy in the Maryland Church. That he 
could number William Duke among his 
friends is no small thing for Weems to 
boast of. 

It is something of a surprise to learn that 
Weems was not popular with the people of 
the county, and probably even of his own par- 
ish of All Hallows\ for about the time of his 
giving up his rectorship there, we find Duke 
writing of a visit to some friends in the course 
of which the conversation turned, he says, 
upon " the duties of ministers and the diffi- 
culties of reforming the people. The Rev'd 
M. Weems was mentioned and the dislike 
and disapprobation that he meets with. As 
he is chiefly remarkable for his zeal and in- 
dustry I could not help attributing the oppo- 


sitlon generally to that diabolical spirit which 
Is enmity against God." 

One of the characteristics which Weems re- 
tained for long years after he had given up 
the ministry was his eagerness to preach or 
pray anywhere and at any time. Deeply ear- 
nest in his desire to spread the gospel truth, 
he was for thirty years of his later wandering 
life a sort of unofficial itinerant, an occasional 
missionary. This was his lifelong habit. One 
day we catch a glimpse of him riding into 
Upper Marlboro with William Duke, who 
that night entered in his " Diary" the fact that 
^* Mr. W — — preached in the Ball room." 
This was twenty years before there was an 
Episcopal church in Upper Marlboro, but 
Weems never waited for churches ; inn parlor, 
court house steps, ball room, village green or 
cottager's kitchen were his churches as often 
as the buildings regularly consecrated to pub- 
lic worship. An entry from the *' Diary " 
illustrates his perseverance in labors of this 
sort and his anxiety to serve. He and Duke 
are speaking and praying in a poor woman's 


cottage. The latter thus describes the ser- 
vice: " The old woman's son Eli interrupted 
us several times. I was sorry that Mr. Weems 
took so much trouble to satisfy him as it only 
made him more petulant." 

Once, as we learn in a letter from Dr. Clag- 
gett to William Duke, his ardor in the propa- 
gation of the Faith brought upon him some 
criticism from his brother clergy. Dr. Clag- 
gett complains, almost tearfully that after 
having asked his advice in the matter, Weems 
had acted contrary to it and preached to a 
Methodist congregation in his neighborhood. 
He proceeds with his plaint: " I have a re- 
gard for Weems, his zeal & attention to ye 
Duties of his sacred office merit esteem; but 
in proportion as this Zeal & Diligence are 
applied to the Methodist Interest it weakens 
us." ""^ There was no rigidity in the church- 
manship of Weems. To-day he would be 
classed with the " low " churchmen, or, as 
he was not unaffected by the critical thought 

'^ In collection of MSS. letters in the Maryland Diocesan 
Library, Baltimore. 


of his time, It might be nearer the mark to 
say that he was one of the first of American 
'' broad " churchmen. 

It is generally said that Weems gave up the 
active ministry for the bookselling business 
about the year 1800, but it was eight years be- 
fore this that he first went upon the road as 
a book peddler. He attended the Conven- 
tion '* held in Annapolis in June, 1792, as 
rector of Westminster Parish, and we learn 
from the '' Diary " that its writer and Weems 
lodged together during the sessions, and that 
Weems obtained his and many other subscrip- 
tions to a tract which he had lately published. 
By September of 1792, he had given up his 
parish in Maryland, and as far as is known 
he never after this held a regular charge. The 
authority for the latter date is the " Diary," 
for Duke, who has just become rector of 
North Elk Parish, Cecil County, and lives in 
Elkton, writes as follows: " Went to Church 
and preached — the Rev'd Mr. Weems came 
in the mean time. . . . Was sorry to see 

^* Journal of Convention, Diocese of Maryland, 1792. 


Weem's pedling way of life, but God knows 
best by what methods we can most directly 
answer the designations of his Providence." 
This can have but one meaning, and that is 
that Weems had given up his parish and taken 
to the road as a means of livelihood. 

The town of Elkton, where William Duke 
was now domiciled, lay not far from Wil- 
mington on the highroad from Baltimore to 
Philadelphia, and at this period of his life 
Weems appears to have had a great deal of 
business in these three cities. The conse- 
quence was that he passed through Elkton 
with frequency and regularity, and always in 
his visits he stopped for a night or a day at 
the Duke house, either to take advantage of 
its hospitality, or to discuss one of the many 
business deals which he continued to have with 
its master. In this way we are able to meet 
him in the flesh until the year 1808. Doubt- 
less he had business or expectations of it in 
Philadelphia, but in connection with his many 
visits there, it should be remembered that in 
and near that city lived his first cousins, the 


children of his aunt, Williamina Moore. Tra- 
dition has It that he was a frequent visitor at 
Moore Hall, and it may have been through 
the Influence of his relatives that he was finally 
brought into the employment of Matthew 
Carey, the active Philadelphia publisher. 

In the last eight years of the century, how- 
ever, he seems to have been much at a loose 
end, for he Is here and everywhere, planning 
publishing ventures, selling books of his own 
and others' publishing, and making tentative 
efforts towards authorship on his own account. 
He is feeling his way to the successful busi- 
ness and literary activities of his later life. 
In 1794, Samuel and John Adams of Wil- 
mington printed for him Wilson's Account of 
the Pelew Islands, a book which three years 
before he had heard William Duke read aloud 
at the " Wood Yard," the West estate in 
Prince George County. In the same year he 
turns up in New York, and on his return he 
bears a letter from the Rev. Abram Beach,''' 
assistant at Trinity Church, to Dr. Claggett, 

^''MSS. letters in Maryland Diocesan Library, Baltimore. 


now Bishop of the Diocese of Maryland. In 
the letter, among other matters of Interest to 
Its writer, there occurs this sentence: '' Mr. 
Weems Informs me that he Intends to publish 
a volume of Sermons under the Title of the 
American Proft Episcopal Preacher the Plan 
which he will have an opportunity to present 
to you In person. Is, I think, a good one — and 
cannot but wish him success." There Is no 
record of this book ever having been pub- 
lished. In 1796 he brought out the third of 
his publications of w^hlch there Is any record, 
an edition of Franklin's pamphlet. The Way 
to Wealth. Decidedly of the upper class by 
birth, Weems was nevertheless of the middle 
class In temperament and sympathy, and one 
of the many ways that this democracy shows 
In his life and writings Is his almost weari- 
some admiration of Franklin and his trinity 
of bourgeois virtues, Industry, Temperance 
and Frugality. 

Weems' efforts during these years could not 
have been especially remunerative In the gear 
of this world, for In November, 1795, Duke 


writes In his " Diary " after one of his 
friend's visits: "I wonder at Weems to 
travel afoot," and now and for some time 
afterwards, on these occasions, he writes of 
" walking " a bit on his way with him. Until 
sometime later in the decade, when he became 
Matthew Carey's agent for the Southern 
States, it is probable that he led a poorly re- 
warded life of labor. On the second day of 
July, 1795,'" he married Miss Fanny Ewell, 
the daughter of Col. Jesse Ewell of " Belle 
Air," Prince William County, Virginia, and 
soon afterwards he settled in the then flour- 
ishing town of Dumfries in the same county, 
where he established a sort of base of sup- 
plies in the way of a book store. For the rest 
of his life, Dumfries, and later " Belle Air," 
were the havens of rest to which he looked 
forward as the reward of his journeys' ends. 
He had a large family of children, and it is 
said that their home life was peculiarly happy. 
Certainly he was a tender and loving father 
and husband. 

^Historian of the Cherry Tree," Walter B. Norris in 
National Magazine, February, 1910. 


The Episcopal Church In Virginia fell into 
popular disfavor after the Revolutionary 
War. Its glebes and endowments were taken 
away, and the popular voice cried down its 
every defence. It was the Church of Eng- 
land, and therefore despicable as were all 
things English. The consequence was that 
its membership fell away, its clergy became 
few and disheartened, and in some places the 
churches were closed for lack either of priest 
or people, or sometimes of both. Pohick, one 
of the four churches of Truro, sometimes 
called Mt. Vernon Parish, had no minister- 
in-charge for the last fifteen years of the cen- 
tury. It became the custom to contract with 
a visiting or a travelling clergyman to hold 
services here for a month or two, or longer, 
as the case might be, and the present His- 
toriographer of the Diocese of Virginia ^^ has 

" The Rev. E. L. Goodwin, Fairfax, Va. 


seen a copy of one of these contracts whereby 
a certain clergyman was to serve as locum 
tenens of Pohick Church. 

It Is most probable that It was through an 
arrangement of this sort that Weems min- 
istered In Pohick Church at different times for 
more than two decades, and this Is his only 
ground for styling himself In after years as 
" Formerly rector of Mt. Vernon Parish." 
Pohick, before the Revolution, had been the 
chosen place of worship of George Washing- 
ton, and doubtless Weems considered It no 
small advertisement for his Life of Washing- 
ton that its author should describe himself on 
its title page as having been at one time the 
hero's rector, with all that such a title im- 
plied. He was rather in the habit of putting 
his best foot forward where the sale of his 
books was in question, and this is one of the 
two instances in which the boot upon the said 
foot was a borrowed one. In the absence, 
however, of a full knowledge of the circum- 
stances entering Into the matter. It Is well to 
regard with charity this apparent perversion 


of truth. It is not the least improbable that 
during his various tenures of Pohick, he was 
locally regarded as the Rector of Mt. Vernon 
Parish. As late as the year 1817,^' Weems 
in a letter to Mr. Allen, a student of divinity 
in Alexandria, speaks of not being able to 
keep his appointment to preach on the follow- 
ing Sunday in Pohick Church, so that his as- 
sumption of the title of rector had evidently 
not aroused a great amount of resentment 
against him in the parish. 

There is evidence in plenty of a local sort 
that Weems preached at various periods in 
Pohick Church, and certain passages in John 
Davis' Travels in America show him there in 
1 801 preaching, and apparently acceptably, 
to a crowded church. I give some extracts 
from the pages of the lively Englishman : 

" Hither I rode on Sundays and joined the 
congregation of Parson Weems, a minister of 
the Episcopal persuasion, who was cheerful 
in his mien that he might win men to religion. 
A Virginian churchyard on Sunday resembles 

^Southern Churchman, June 11, 1910. 


rather a race course than a sepulchral ground. 
The ladies come to It In carriages and the men 
after dismounting make fast their horses to 
the trees. I was astounded on entering the 
yard to hear ' steed threaten steed with high 
and boastful neigh.' Nor was I less stunned 
by the rattling of carriage wheels and the 
cracking of whips and the vociferations of the 
gentry to the negroes who accompanied them. 
But the discourse of Mr. Weems calmed every 
perturbation, for he preached the great doc- 
trine of salvation as one who had felt Its 
power. It was easy to discover that he felt 
what he said; and, indeed, so uniform was his 
piety that he might have applied to himself 
the words of the prophet : ' My mouth shall 
be telling of the righteousness and salvation 
of Christ all the day long: for I know no end 
thereof.' " 

" ' How, Sir, did you like my preaching? ' 
' Sir,' cried I, ' It was a sermon to pull down 
the proud, and humble the haughty. I have 
reason to believe that many of your congre- 


gatlon were under spiritual and scriptural con- 
viction of their sins. Sir, you spoke home to 
sinners. You knocked at the door of their 
hearts.' " 

" ' I grant that,' said Parson Weems. ' But 
I doubt (shaking his head) whether the 
hearts of many were not both barred and 
bolted against me.' " 

Weems was an admirer of the preaching 
of John Wesley, and if one may judge from 
the words of this witness and from the testi- 
mony of his pamphlets which are but ser- 
mons enlarged, it is safe to say that his ser- 
mons were permeated with that evangelical 
spirit which set flowing the tears of repent- 
ance wherever the early Methodists held their 

In the above extract from Travels in Amer- 
ica, there appears a hint of something in 
Weems' conduct which did him disservice 
with Bishop Meade and certain others who 
like the Bishop knew only one kind of preach- 
ing and one kind of praying. To be " cheer- 
ful in his mien that he might win men to re- 


ligion " would be considered no great crime 
in a preacher of modern times, provided al- 
ways that a proper dignity were maintained. 
It is in this particular that Weems sinned, 
according to Bishop Meade who writes that 
in family prayers his erring brother would 
present his petitions in such a form that 
neither " the young or old, the grave or gay, 
could keep their risible faculties from violent 
agitation." Whether this was a regular cus- 
tom with Weems, or whether having once or 
twice indulged too freely in homely and vig- 
orous allusions in his prayers and so acquired 
a lasting reputation for irreverence, it is im- 
possible to determine in the absence of other 
testimony. Certainly there is no trace of any- 
thing of the sort in his writings, and the only 
comment that William Duke ever made on 
any of his prayers or exhortations was to re- 
cord that he found one of them " tedious." 
It is possible, of course, that Weems was 
guilty of this sort of sacrilege, but it is not 
the impression that one acquires of him from 
a close study of his life and writings. 


Others of Bishop Meade's memories of 
Weems at this period are of Interest, although 
they are stories which cast doubt upon his 
orthodoxy in the faith, or which at the least 
lay him open to the charge of exercising what 
the Bishop calls a " spurious charity " In 
things doctrinal. " On an election or court- 
day at Fairfax Court-House," writes the 
church historian of Virginia, " .... I ... . 
found Mr. Weems with a bookcaseful for 
sale. In the portico of the tavern. On looking 
at them I saw Palne's * Age of Reason,' and 
taking it Into my hand, turned to him, and 
asked him If It was possible that he could sell 
such a book. He Immediately took out the 
Bishop of Llandaff's answer, and said, ' Be- 
hold the antidote. The bane and the antidote 
are both before you.' " His crowning im- 
pertinence, however, was that time when in 
the Bishop's own pulpit he " extolled Tom 
Paine and one or more Infidels in America, 
and said if their ghosts could return to earth 
they would be shocked to hear the falsehoods 
which were told of them," a statement which 


was doubtless Truth's very image, for to cer- 
tain of our ancestors Tom Paine was the ful- 
fillment of the Scripture prophecies concern- 
ing Antichrist. It sometimes seems that Par- 
son Weems was that peculiar type of clergy- 
man who Is born and lives apparently for no 
other reason than to vex the soul of whatever 
bishop he may be serving under. 

It is obvious that a clergyman who went 
about the country in a cart, who sold books 
among which were the works of Tom Paine, 
and who preached and prayed in a fashion 
entirely his own, would draw upon himself 
sharp disapproval from Mr. and Mrs. 
Grundy. But It is not likely that Weems 
noticed their averted faces or that he would 
have cared if he had noticed them. They who 
dwell in tents, Ishmael's breed, have never 
been notably sensitive to the opinions, ex- 
pressed or unexpressed, of the sons of Sarah. 
Weems was aggressive in business, zealous in 
religion, tactless and careless of opinion In 
both. He strode in his hob-nailed boots over 
a thousand conventions, but If he got his 


books sold, found an audience now and then 
for a sermon or an address, and carried home 
a good profit to what Bishop Meade calls his 
" interesting and pious family " at Dumfries, 
he cared not what cherished ideal of clerical 
conduct he left trampled behind him. 

It has frequently been said that Weems 
gave up his active ministry because he could 
not support his family upon the small stipend 
with which it was the custom of the day and 
place to reward its clergy. This might have 
been true but for the small consideration that 
when he took to the road in 1792 he had no 
family. The true explanation of his action 
may lie in the fact that he was the victim of 
an incurable restlessness. The opportunity 
offered to gratify his propensity for roaming, 
while at the same time he might employ him- 
self In a business with a wide sphere of use- 
fulness. He seems to have impressed Duke 
with the belief that he took to peddling re- 
ligious and moral literature with the idea of 
serving his God more acceptably than he was 
doing as a parish priest, and that gentleman 


was not one to be taken in by a canting pre- 
text. Doubtless Weems was sincere in this 
explanation, but primarily it was because he 
was born for the road that he took to the 
road. He liked change and movement. He 
gave up medicine for the church, the church 
for the road. He was constitutionally a wan- 
derer. William Duke, himself the most rest- 
less of men, rode in and out, endlong and 
overthwart the state of Maryland, and as 
often as not in some inaccessible corner he re- 
cords a meeting with Mr. Weems, then a 
simple parish priest. Just what their business 
is, or whether they have any, no man may 
know. At any rate Weems liked to wander 
and he liked to sell books, and if any person 
may be said to have the advantage of keeping 
his cake and eating it too, it is he who en- 
gages in a profitable business the activities of 
which are in line with his predilections. To 
live in a van and sell books for bread ! What 
golden dream is this? 

His life as a wandering book peddler has 
become part of the local tradition of many 


of the places through which his business used 
to take him. The legends say that he carried 
his violin with him on the long journeys which 
made up the greater part of his later life, and 
it is pleasant to think of him as having this 
means of relaxation. Numerous stories are 
told of his willingness to play for dances, for 
the negro boys' " hoe down," and once even 
for a puppet show. Generally the narrator of 
these tales implies that in them there is some- 
thing discreditable to their subject. Bishop 
Meade disapproved of these doings almost as 
much as he did of the good-natured minstrel's 
heretical opinions concerning Tom Paine. 
The stories about his fiddling are so conflict- 
ing, so frequently asserted by one and so em- 
phatically denied by others, that it is difficult 
to say how general a custom this public fid- 
ling was with him. It is to be hoped that they 
are true tales. Surely there is no harm in 
fiddling. One likes to think of him ready at 
all times to play for rich or poor, in the 
" great house " or in the " quarter." This is 
certain, that if he fiddled for people to dance, 


he was equally ready to inveigh upon them 
shrewdly if they showed vicious inclination. 
If it was pleasant for those who danced to his 
playing, it was correspondingly unpleasant for 
the drunkard or the rake that felt the rough 
of his tongue. We gather from various 
sources a sort of composite pen picture of 
Weems as he appeared to the people of the 
rural South — a merrily disposed, white-haired 
man who was ready at a moment's notice to 
play for you to dance, to sell you an improv- 
ing book, to pray with you, or to preach at 
you a sermon which, for the shame of it, you 
would remember all your life.""'* 

This is to say little of the business side of 
his life. If his object was to praise God by 
circulating religious literature through the 
South, he attained it beyond dispute. It has 
been asserted that in one year he sold three 

^^ In fairness it should be recorded that the descendants 
of Weems are positive in their denial of the stories relating 
to his public fiddling. It is true that these stories are 
legendary, but they are so persistent, and there is so little 
evidence of their untruth that it is necessary in the interests 
of the story to notice them here. 


thousand copies of an exceptionally handsome 
and expensive Bible which Matthew Carey is 
said to have published with no little uneasi- 
ness as to the success of his venture. He sold 
books for children and books for their elders, 
prayer books, hymn books. Bibles, philosoph- 
ical, historical and biographical works — any- 
thing, in short, that there was a possible de- 
mand for. He circulated no man may tell 
how many thousands of his own biographies 
and moral pamphlets, and a great number of 
books of sermons and philosophical works by 
standard authors which he published at his 
own risk. There has been published a letter 
from him to one of his several employers ^ in 
which, writing of the sale of Marshall's Life 
of Washington, he advises and discourses so 
knowingly of the peculiarities of customers 

^ This very interesting letter is to be found in the Ameri- 
can Historical Record, vol. 2, Feb. 1873, p. 82. It is worthy 
of perusal. It is addressed to Caleb P. Wayne, the pub- 
lisher of Marshall's " Life of Washington." Weems left 
the service of Matthew Carey about this time (1804), but 
later, Carey apparently agrees to disagree with his strong- 
headed agent, and the old relationship is resumed. It was 
doubtless ^ mutually advantageous one. 


and the ins and outs of the trade that one 
feels the case to be understated when he says 
further In the letter: " The world Is pleased 
to say that I have talents at the subscription 
business." In the same letter he plans for a 
third edition of one of his own pamphlets, to 
consist of a thousand copies. 

The manner of his selling was not always 
the same. Without doubt when he had to 
secure subscriptions to the five-volume edition 
of Marshall's Life of Washington, he went 
about It In the regular fashion of book agents 
and authors from time Immemorial. Woe to 
the poor gentleman who admitted him to his 
house when a project of this sort was afoot, 
for Weems was not unknown for a certain 
^* Industry & Zeal." When, however, it was 
merely a question of disposing of a fresh box 
of miscellaneous works, moral, religious or 
educational, he would place himself In the 
portico of the tavern on court day and there 
expose his wares to the public gaze. We can 
imagine him so placed, calling his greetings 
to acquaintances from the outlying parts, ex- 


changing a jest with one, a kind word with 
another, or seizing a third, a possible cus- 
tomer, and overwhelming him with a flood of 
words relative to the merits of his new stock 
in trade. It is said that, armed with a sheaf 
of pamphlets, he would Invade crowded tav- 
ern bars, take up a favorable position In view 
of all, and after a few words of good-natured 
bantering, launch a virile diatribe against the 
sin of drunkenness and Its attendant evils. 
Then, before his astonished hearers had time 
to get sulky, he would go around among them 
and sell a handful of his Drunkard^ s Looking 
Glass at twenty-five cents a copy, combining 
by this means philanthropic service and per- 
sonal profit. 

Without doubt the " interesting and pious 
family " which he maintained in Dumfries 
and " Belle Air " was supported In comfort 
and decency. After nearly thirty-five years of 
life on the road, Parson Weems died In 1825, 
while on business In Beaufort, South Carolina. 
A well-founded tradition has it that he died 
In the utterance of a sentiment which had ani- 


mated his life. " God is love/' were his last 
words. He was buried there, but ere long his 
remains were removed to a corner of the fam- 
ily cemetery on the " Belle Air " estate. It 
was here that the leisure of his later years had 
been spent, and it is fitting that his restless, 
road-worn body should finally be at rest in 
the beautiful, placid spot which he loved. 


It would be a mistake for anyone to take 
up the works of Weems thinking to find in 
them well-considered historical writing and 
careful biography. They are of interest to- 
day principally as literary curiosities, and as 
with all books of this sort, it Is with each 
reader almost a matter of pre-natal disposi- 
tion whether or not he will like them or find 
them dull and flat. If he was born to like 
Weems as a writer, he will like him in spite 
of obvious faults, but if his predisposition is 
to the contrary, no amount of exposition will 
persuade him that the '' historian of the 
Cherry Tree " is anything but an inaccurate 
biographer, an extravagant preacher of mor- 
als and a saucy fellow who was sometimes in- 
excusably vulgar in thought or expression. 

Doubtless Weems felt that there was a 
place for his biographical and moral works in 


the America which emerged from the War of 
Independence, for when he began his literary 
career the country had but lately come out of 
a successful struggle for liberty, and child-like 
it was confounding its new possession with 
that other quality of license, loath to submit 
itself again to government of any sort. Fed- 
eral and Democrat were the opposing parties. 
Jacobin clubs, Tammany organizations and 
other political associations were forming on 
every hand, while party hatred ran so high 
that not even Washington was spared the 
vilest lampoons. Eighteenth century ration- 
alism, which here became succinctly " French 
Infidelity," was submerging the intellects of 
the educated classes, and the unsettled politics 
of Europe contributed no little to the national 
uneasiness. The indirect result of all this was 
a relaxation of the moral fibre of all classes, 
and the country stood in need of those who 
could tell it who were its truly great men and 
why they were great, and to ding in its ears 
that the Ten Commandments had not been re- 
scinded by the Declaration of Independence. 


This was what Weems tried to do by preach- 
ing, by praying and by biographical and moral 

The first published work of Weems is gen- 
erally said to have been the Philanthropist in 
1 799, but thanks to certain entries in the Duke 
" Diary," an earlier publication than this can 
be named, although, unfortunately, there are 
to be found no details of the little book in 
question. Just before he gave up his active 
ministry in the Diocese of Maryland, he at- 
tended the annual convention at Annapolis, 
and William Duke writes as follows of some 
of the happenings of these days and others 
later in the month. *' June i, 1792. Walked 
into the country and lodged with Mr. Weems 
and Mr. Coleman. Subscribed Weems' pro- 
posals for 2 books and paid i/io." " June 
29. I see Weems' publication of Onania is in 
a good many hands. I am afraid rather as 
a matter of diversion than serious considera- 
tion." And next day he proceeds: " Weems 
has incurred a good deal of ridicule as well 
as serious blame by his odd publication." 


This date, June i, 1792, places the begin- 
ning of Weems' literary career seven years 
earlier than has been done heretofore by his 
biographers. He published in 1799, as has 
been said, a political tract called the Philan- 
thropist, and as far as is known these two are 
the only writings of his that saw type before 
the publication of his Life of Washington in 
1800, an event which may truly be called his 
literary debut. Aside from their undeniable 
merit, there are additional reasons which 
should be given in explanation of the popu- 
larity of the books and pamphlets which he 
now began to produce in quick succession to 
one another. The Revolution had left an im- 
pressionable people who immediately entered 
upon an era of generous hero worship, and a 
man who could add fuel to their ardor in this 
would be sure of a hearing from all classes. 
Then, too, it was no small thing in his favor 
that he was his own publisher and his own dis- 
tributing agent. But the most important rea- 
son for the magnitude and distribution of his 
audience is the fact that he found no rivals in 


his own particular field of endeavor. And 
this Is said with no Intention of depreciating 
the quality of his work. 

The generation of Weems' literary activ- 
ity, approximately the years 1790- 1820, was 
a sterile period in the production of books for 
young people or for the less cultured of their 
elders. Of native writers, at least, scarcely 
one offered anything fit for the reading of 
children, and even In England the list of 
books for young people and in the least suit- 
able for them was painfully short. In his 
own country Weems was a pioneer In what 
has since become a great industry, the writing 
of books for boys. 

The grimly mysterious tales of Charles 
Brockden Brown, the essays and novels of 
James Kirke Paulding, the comedies of Royall 
Tyler and the belles lettres of Washington 
Irving were for the pleasing of a higher in- 
tellectual taste than the day and place could 
claim for its average reader. Cooper had not 
yet begun the writing which was to Inaugurate 
a new era In American letters. When, there- 


fore, Weems appeared to the shopkeeper, the 
artisan, the ploughboy and the children of all 
of them, with his stirring lives of Washington 
and Marion, written in language of the sim- 
plest, without any attempt at subtlety or orig- 
inality of thought, and in a style which is the 
despair of a more conscious writer, he was ac- 
claimed as a national benefactor. For his own 
generation, he was the most widely read of 
American writers. The number of editions 
of his Life of Washington is variously esti- 
mated from forty to seventy, and in a day 
when books were passed from hand to hand 
to a greater extent than now, this one must 
have reached a host of readers. 

The Civil War made new heroes, and it 
and its results changed the country from lad 
to man. The consequence has been that 
Weems is almost unknown to the generation 
which has grown up since the great conflict 
between the States. Not a year ago, however, 
this writer found a newly printed issue of the 
Life of Marion on the shelf of a country 
store, and he knows of a contemplated new 


edition of the Life of Washington. If an 
author's fame be measured by the publisher's 
memory of his work, Weems has attained a 
share of the shining bauble sufficient to lift 
him completely beyond the class of minor 
writers In which his merits place him. 


In December of 1799 died George Wash- 
ington, who to many of his contemporaries 
was the archetype of statesman, soldier and 
gentleman, while on the other hand to a large 
number of people, he stood for everything 
that was the opposite of these connotations in 
mind, manners and morals. Weems was of 
the former class, and in an outburst of sin- 
cere hero worship he wrote, and published 
on February 22, 1800, a short biographical 
sketch of the great general and president. His 
was not the first " life " of Washington that 
appeared, but it was so far the best and most 
readable that a new and enlarged edition was 
called for immediately. For the rest of his 
days he was collecting new material for the 
successive enlargements and embellishments 
of the work which, from an anniversary ser- 

[See page 92.] 


mon, became his most important contribution 
to literature. 

We owe chiefly to the biographies by Mar- 
shall and Ramsay the picture which we have 
of Washington as the cold and colorless 
statesman and man of affairs, but it must be 
confessed that it is Weems who has made his 
name almost a synonym for youthful priggish- 
ness. His life of the hero of the Cherry Tree 
story was written chiefly for the youth of the 
land that they might have before them always 
an example of perfection in conduct, but it 
needs only reference to such a book as San- 
ford and Merton to become convinced that 
the eighteenth century ideal of manners in 
boys was not ours. That he was unaware of 
his offense is evident from the fact that in 
one of the later editions of the book he de- 
clares in the preface his intention of human- 
izing one who already lived in the popular 
imagination as a sort of demi-god. 

Not by any means the most worthy, but cer- 
tainly the best known of American hero tales 
is the story of George Washington and his 


mutilation of the Cherry Tree.'" It is as- 
serted, generally carelessly and without any 
thought upon the subject, that Weems was 
father and mother to this famous anecdote as 
well as its sponsor, and no one may deny the 
assertion. It is only fair, however, to say 
that no really good reason has ever been 
given for holding this view, and no evidence 
has ever been brought forward In support of 
it. On the contrary there Is something to be 
said for the authenticity of the anecdote. The 
story Is probable in every detail, and it is well 
known that Weems was assiduous In the col- 
lection of Washington anecdotes of every 
sort. Moreover, through his wife's kinship 
with the Washington family, he had every 
opportunity for learning these anecdotes, if 
any existed, from authoritative sources. He 
knew Washington personally, corresponded 
with him, and in company with their common 
friend. Dr. Cralk, stayed at least once with 

^ For a full and interesting discussion of the Cherry 
Tree story, see " Historian of the Cherry Tree," W. B. 
Norris, National Magazine, February, 1910. 


him at Mt. Vernon, and he was intimate with 
the Reverend Lee Massey who was Washing- 
ton's rector and associate for many years. 
These things, of course, may mean nothing. 
They are given only to show that it was en- 
tirely possible for Weems to have heard the 
Cherry Tree anecdote from some one close 
to its hero. It is quite within the pale of 
probability that when Weems gave as his au- 
thority for the story the same " excellent 
lady " who had told him others of her mem- 
ories of the youthful hero, he was speaking 
sober truth. 

Even if the story be wholly invented by 
Weems, he has done a real service to the 
youth of the nation. It is questionable, of 
course, as a matter of literary ethics to lay an 
invented anecdote to the charge of one's hero, 
but possibly the good parson thought that a 
striking example of truthfulness would be of 
value to the American boy, wherefore he in- 
vented a story containing one. He has made 
the best-known story of American childhood 
one that teaches by great example the telling 


of the truth whatever befall. Who may say 
that this story, true or untrue, has not had an 
influence on the national character?'"* 

Weems has been accused of a general fabri- 
cation of all his Washington anecdotes. 
Whether or not there is any foundation for 
this will probably never be known, as it is a 
matter likely to baffle the research of scholars. 
In the case of one at least of the best remem- 
bered of them, it is established beyond doubt 
that he brazenly transplanted it from another 
book, a fact which makes it difficult to defend 
him from the accusation of literary dishon- 
esty. But true, or stolen, or invented, this 
much is to be considered, that they are good 
anecdotes of their sort and the only ones that 
we have pertaining to the youth of George 

The literary style of the Life of JVashing- 

^* Lincoln tells of having borrowed Weems' Life of 
Washington and read it during his hard-working boyhood. 
Moreover, he left it in a hiding-place where the rain 
entered and sadly damaged the book. He was compelled 
to work still harder for a while to pay the owner for the 
ruin which had resulted from his carelessness. 


ton and others of the works of Weems is 
worthy of some consideration, for a dull or 
a badly written page in these books is a rarity, 
and this statement is made advisedly and with 
deference to Henry Cabot Lodge's '' charac- 
terization of his style as '' turgid, overloaded 
and at times silly." His writing is embel- 
lished with anecdotes, figures of comparison, 
and appropriate historical, classical and scrip- 
tural allusions. The language is simple, the 
sentences uninvolved, the vocabulary varied 
and the whole inspired by that something 
which we call " style," that spirit which makes 
a piece of writing live and move. 

He has grave defects as a writer of Eng- 
lish. His figurative language is sometimes 
grandiose in the manner of his age. He fre- 
quently indulges In a species of fine writing 
exasperating to the critical mind, and his use 
of the epic where plain prose were better 
spoils many a passage in his books. He was 
one of the lesser writers of the fag end of an 

^ George Washington. By Henry Cabot Lodge. (Ameri- 
can Statesman Series.) 


age which preferred Mr. Alexander Pope to 
William Shakespeare, and which was so deaf- 
ened by the roar of Osslan in its ears that it 
could not hear Burns the Gauger singing im- 
mortal odes in his Scottish gin shops. It was 
an artificial age and Weems partook of its 
faults, but there was in him sufficient literary 
virtue to make his books live in the affection 
of his countrymen for more than a generation 
after his death. Discredited by historians 
and his books supplanted by those of later 
and more authoritative biographers, it is his 
style which has kept him from oblivion. Since 
Weems' death this nation has given birth to 
several heroes, but there has arisen no biogra- 
pher to make their lives the common property 
of every household in the land. There have 
lived and died Lee and Lincoln, Jackson and 
Grant, and each of these has been written 
about time and again, but none of them has 
had a biographer in the sense that Weems was 
the biographer of Washington. And this is 
true not because he is an accurate historian or 
a painstaking biographer, but because he tells 


his story with a contagious enthusiasm which 
fixes itself in the reader's memory. 

Weems was first of all a preacher, and his 
style exhibits the marks of his calling, that 
peculiar fluency of language which is the pos- 
session of one who does a great deal of ex- 
temporaneous speaking. He was well read in 
the classics, he knew his Shakespeare, and it 
is said that he could recite from memory the 
Book of Common Prayer and a vast portion 
of the Holy Scripture. It is not necessary 
to look much further for an explanation of 
his lively, sometimes breathless, narrative 
style. He wrote in the straightforward, un- 
stemmed form of address which is the use of 
every earnest preacher of moderate oratorical 
ability, the language and rhetorical style of 
a man who must say much in a restricted time, 
and who to express his thought is driven to 
the use of nervous, racy and direct language. 
Moreover Weems had for a heritage the 
" unstinted English of the Scot," and he lived 
in an age which was not ashamed of elo- 
quence, the generation in which every school- 


house rang with the wildest oratorical flights 
essayed by even the gentlest of lads. In his 
writing, the reader never loses sight of the 
eloquent preacher and orator. 

The simile which is quoted here is one that 
Weems in various forms frequently employs. 
It is undoubtedly grandiloquent, but it is ap- 
propriate and expressive none the less for that 
reason. There are many of us, indeed, who 
confess to a shamefaced liking for this sort of 
bombast. It is pleasant now and then to 
meet a man who is not afraid to let himself 
out, one who knows not the use of the word 
*' reserve " in literary composition. '' As 
when a mammoth suddenly dashes in among 
a thousand buffaloes, feeding at large on the 
vast plains of Missouri; all at once the in- 
numerous herd, with wildly rolling eyes, and 
hideous bellowings, break forth into flight, 
while, close at their heels the roaring monster 
follows. Earth trembles as they fly. Such 
was the noise in the chase of Tarleton .... 
from the famous field of Cowpens." 

The following anecdote is as good an ex- 


ample as may be found of the sort which il- 
lumine his pages, and which make it impos- 
sible to charge him with dullness, whatever 
his other faults may be. " Tarleton was 
brave, but not generous. He could not bear 
to hear another's praise. When some ladies 
in Charleston were speaking very handsomely 
of Washington,'' he replied with a scornful 
air that, * He would be very glad to get a 
sight of Col. Washington. He had heard 
much talk of him,' he said, ^ but had never 
seen him yet.' * Why, sir,' rejoined one of 
the ladies, * if you had looked behind you at 
the battle of Cowpens, you might easily have 
enjoyed that pleasure.' " 

When he is not in a Homeric mood his 
battle pictures, howbeit lightly sketched, are 
generally done with a good deal of spirit and 
enthusiasm. They are not good historical 
sources, but they are eminently readable. 
Take, for an example, his description of the 
defense of Charleston : " ' Well, General 
Moultrie,' said Governor Rutledge, * what do 

^ Colonel Washington, not the Commander-in-Chief. 


you think of giving up the fort? ' Moultrie 
could scarcely suppress his indignation. ' No 
man, sir/ said he to Lee, * can have a higher 
opinion of the British ships and seamen than 
I have. But there are others who love the 
smell of gunpowder as well as they do; and 
give us but plenty of powder and ball, sir, 
and let them come on as soon as they please.' 
His courage was quickly put to the test; for 
about ten o'clock, on the 28th of June, in the 
glorious 1776, Sir Peter Parker, with seven 
tall ships formed his line, and bearing down 
within point-blank shot of the fort, let go his 
anchors and began a tremendous fire. At 
every thundering blast he hoped fondly to 
see the militia take to the sands like fright- 
ened rats from an old barn on fire. But, 
widely different from his hopes, the militia 
stood their ground, firm as the Black-jacks of 
their land ; and leveling their f our-and-twenty 
pounders with good aim, bored the old hearts 
of oak through and through at every fire. 
Their third broadside carried away the 
springs on the cables of the commodore's 


ship, which immediately swung around right 
stern under the guns of the fort. ' Hurra ! my 
sons of thunder,' was instantly the cry of the 
American battery, ' look handsomely to the 
commodore ! now my boys, for your best re- 
spects to the commodore ! ' Little did the 
commodore thank them for such respects; 
for In a short time he had 60 of his brave crew 
lying lifeless on his decks, and his cockpit 
stowed with the wounded. At one period 
of the action, the quarter-deck was cleared of 
every soul, except Sir Peter himself. Nor 
was he entirely excused; for an honest cannon 
ball, by way of a broad hint that It was out 
of character for a Briton to fight against lib- 
erty, rudely snatched away the bags of his 
silk breeches. Thus Sir Peter had the honour 
to be the first, and I believe the only Sans 
Culotte ever heard of In American natural 

This Is informal writing, but It at least has 
the merit of life and animation. He goes to 
the other extreme In describing the Battle of 
Saratoga, but It Is not to the reader's loss that 


the epic fire burnt within the honest parson 
for a moment or two: 

" The riflemen flew to their places, and in 
a few moments the hero "^ was cut down. 
With him fell the courage of the left wing, 
who, being now fiercely charged, gave way, 
and retreated to their camp. But scarcely had 
they entered it, when the Americans, with 
Arnold at their head, stormed it with incon- 
ceivable fury; rushing with trailed arms 
through a heavy discharge of musketry and 
grape shot. The British fought with equal 
desperation. For their all was at stake; the 
Americans, like a whelming flood, were burst- 
ing over their intrenchments ; and hand to 
hand, with arguments of bloody steel, were 
pleading the causes of ages yet unborn. 
Hoarse as a mastiff of true British breed, 
Lord Balcarras was heard from rank to rank, 
loud-animating his troops ; while on the other 
hand, fierce as the hungry tiger of Bengal, the 
impetuous Arnold precipitated his heroes on 

^'The British General Frazier, shot by Arnold's picked 


the stubborn foe. High in air, the encoun- 
tering banners blazed; there bold waving the 
lion painted standards of Britain; here the 
streaming pride of Columbia's lovely stripes 
— while thick below, ten thousand eager war- 
riors close the darkening files, all bristled with 
vengeful steel. No firing is heard. But 
shrill and terrible, from rank to rank, re- 
sounds the clash of bayonets — frequent and 
sad the groans of the dying. Pairs on pairs, 
Britons and Americans, with each his bayonet 
in his brother's breast, fall forward together 
faint-shrieking in death, and mingle their 
smoking blood." 

Next In merit and importance to Weems' 
Life of Washington stands his Life of Gen- 
eral Francis Marion^ a work which was pub- 
lished under the reputed authorship of Peter 
Horry. In this book the author is accused of 
the same sort of unveracious anecdotage as 
in the Life of Washington, but William Gil- 
more Simms was of a contrary opinion, for he 
wrote in the preface of his own biography of 



the famous partisan leader that " Mr. Weems 
had rather loose notions of the privileges of 
the biographer; though, in reality, he has 
transgressed much less in his Life of Marion 
than is generally supposed." But even if we 
accept Mr. Simms' statement, and allow 
Weems to have been more trustworthy than 
usual in this work, yet it is not as a study in 
biography that we turn to it. Its charm lies 
in the fact that of sober history and biography 
the author has made an unusually entertain- 
ing historical romance. Simms called it " a 
delightful book for the young." It is more 
than this; it is a delightful book for anyone 
that will read it. 

One of Marion's companions in arms was 
General Peter Horry, a stout soldier and an 
eminent citizen of South Carolina. Weems 
persuaded this personage to turn over to him 
material which he had collected with a view to 
writing the life of his great leader and friend, 
and it is doubtful if the bluff, plain soldier 
was not much relieved to shift the responsibil- 
ity of the undertaking to a more practised 


writer. He was unfelgnedly displeased, how- 
ever, when the book appeared and its title 
page proclaimed him as the author, for he 
declared that he could not recognize his own 
sober notes In the form which they had taken 
In the hands of Mr. Weems. 

It is certain that the book was entirely of 
Weems' authorship, and what his motive was 
In disclaiming this connection with It, Is, and 
will ever be something of a problem. Whether 
it was simply that he wished to give his book 
the better commercial chance which It would 
have under the name of the widely known old 
hero, or whether he had some agreement with 
the General which the latter In his indigna- 
tion repudiated. It is difficult to say with cer- 
tainty. At any rate his action was question- 
able enough to bring a storm upon his head 
in the form of spirited protests from the out- 
raged Horry, who endeavored to assuage his 
mortification and anger by a series of bitter 
letters. Weems replied that he had enlivened 
his collaborator's material and written a " mil- 
itary romance." General Horry might as 


well have saved the paper upon which he 
wrote his denunciatory letters, for a second 
edition of the book was soon brought out in 
which there were no changes made either in 
the manner of presentation or in the name of 
the author. In later editions, the work was 
credited to " General Peter Horry and M. L. 
Weems," but this is the only concession that 
was made, and the book has been as widely 
known as " Horry's Life of Marion '' as by 
any other signification.'* 

The preface to the celebrated " military 
romance " in which General Horry is repre- 
sented as giving in the first person his reasons 
for writing a memoir of his friend, must have 
been amusingly true to life. It has been sug- 
gested that the reason for Horry's disgust 
with the book and its author was the uncanny 
cleverness with which here and there through- 
out the work Weems drew the character of 
the rough-mannered but stout-hearted old sol- 
dier and gentleman. It was a splendid bit of 

** See Wm. Gilmore Simms, Views and Reviews, for an 
account of this literary feud. 


characterization, which fell just short enough 
of caricature to be decent. 

A feature in the Life of Marion which is 
especially pleasing to the reader, and which 
must have been one of the reasons for the 
great popularity of the book in South Caro- 
lina, is the amount of space which the author 
devotes to the words and deeds of his second- 
ary characters. In this respect it is a memoir 
of Marion's men as much as of the wily 
" Swamp Fox " himself. He portrays the 
valorous feats of Sergeants Jasper and Mac- 
donald, of Newton and a score more non- 
commissioned officers and privates, and he 
digresses to tell of the suffering and hardship 
endured by the non-combatant Whigs during 
the British and Tory ascendancy of South 
Carolina. The battles of Marion were 
fought largely within the borders of South 
Carolina, and his men were largely made up 
of natives of that State. The book is con- 
sequently, for the South Carolinean, much 
about home folks. It is the " Roll of the 
Battle Abbey " of that commonwealth. 


The attacks, retreats and daring raids in 
which Sergeant Macdonald and his horse 
Selim are the chief figures make this earliest 
of American historical romances a book of 
delights for the most critical. The author has 
preserved anecdotes and stories of achieve- 
ment of Marion and his paladins which have 
become a part of our Revolutionary tradition. 
His book is an American Mort d' Arthur, and 
if one were to begin a detailed quotation of 
the vigorous and happy descriptions of deeds 
of arms which it contains, he would never 
have done. A few selections must suffice to 
give an idea of the zest with which Weems 
tells a story. 

Marion captures an encampment about the 
fires of which he finds the British drinking, 
fiddling and playing cards. Hear Weems 
tell of an incident of the night. " One of 
the gamblers (it is a serious truth), though 
shot dead, still held the cards griped in his 
hands. Led by curiosity to inspect this strange 
sight, a dead gambler, we found that the 
cards which he held were ace, deuce and jack. 


Clubs were trumps. Holding high, low, jack 
and the game, In his own hand, he seemed 
to be In a fair way to do well; but Marlon 
came down upon him with a trump that 
spoiled his sport, and non-suited him forever." 

It seems that the potent and seductive bev- 
erage known as " apple brandy '' was danger- 
ously popular with the American troopers, 
and Weems closes a chapter dealing wholly 
with disastrous blunders caused by overindul- 
gence In It with the following Incident. While 
foraging near Georgetown, South Carolina, 
six young men of Marlon's force met an old 
Tory whose most valuable possession was a 
bottle of the favorite drink. He was relieved 
of It, and each of them, the story says, 
" twigged the tickler to the tune of a deep 
dram." The relation continues: 

" Macdonald, for his part, with a face as 
red as a comet, reined up Sellm, and drawing 
his claymore, began to pitch and prance about, 
cutting and slashing the empty air, as If he 
had a score of enemies before him, and ever 
and anon, roaring out, ' Huzza, boys ! damme, 
let's charge ! ' 


"'Charge, boys! charge!' cried all the 
rest, reining up their horses, and flourishing 
their swords. 

" ' Where the plague are you going to 
charge ? ' asked the old Tory. 

" ' Why, into Georgetown, right off,' re- 
plied they. 

" ' Well, you had better have a care, boys, 
how you charge there, for I'll be blamed if 
you do not get yourselves into business pretty 
quick: for the town is chock full of red coats.' 

" ' Red coats ! ' one and all they roared out, 
' red coats ! egad, that's just what we want. 
Charge, boys ! charge ! huzza for the red 
coats, damme ! ' 

" Then, clapping spurs to their steeds, off 
went these six young mad-caps, huzzaing and 
flourishing their swords, and charging at full 
tilt into a British garrison of three hundred 
men! ! 

" The enemy supposing that this was only 
our advance, and that General Marion, with 
his whole force, would presently be upon 
them, flew with all speed to their redoubt, 


and there lay, as snug as fleas In a sheep-skin. 
But all of them were not quite so lucky, for 
several were overtaken and cut down In the 
streets, among whom was a sergeant major, a 
stout greasy fellow, who strove hard to waddle 
away with his bacon ; but Sellm was too quick 
for him : and Macdonald with a back-handed 
stroke of his claymore, sent his frightened 
ghost to join the MAJORITY." 

In both the Life of Washington and the 
Life of Marion, Weems Is In the main de- 
pendable In his accounts of the principal 
movements and actions of the war. His de- 
scriptions of the battles, though brief and 
highly colored often by his enthusiasm and 
extreme partisanship, are generally far from 
misleading. It Is probable that he drew 
his Information for the military part of his 
works from the gazettes and other semi- 
official sources, and the principal events In 
the lives of his heroes are also presented 
truthfully and carefully. There cannot be 
two opinions of the value of the service of 
that man who tells In a language understood 


of the people his country's history and the 
lives of its great men. And this holds true 
even if it shall be proved that he has em- 
broidered these writings with details unde- 
niably picturesque but of uncertain origin. 

The Life of Franklin is a less important 
book than either of those which we have 
spoken of. To begin with, a good half of it, 
in the early editions, is simply the oft-printed 
and reprinted " Autobiography " of the great 
philosopher and statesman. Weems should 
have written a good biography of Franklin. 
The words of Poor Richard, the philosopher 
of the middle class, were always on his lips, 
and he never wearied of pointing out the 
greater prosperity which was visited upon the 
thrifty Pennsylvanians than seemed possible 
for the easy going Southerners to attain. 
Moreover he had engaged in pleasant per- 
sonal correspondence with Franklin at the 
time of his struggle for Holy Orders when 
the then Ambassador to France had good- 
naturedly tried to be of service to him. In 


Spite of this predisposition to write a good 
biography of him, he yet in some way fell 
short of success in his attempts to do so. The 
old buoyancy and impulsiveness is missing. 

The later editions of the book are entirely 
by Weems, although in the first half of it he 
has done little more than turn the '' Auto- 
biography " into the narration of a third per- 
son. Taken as a whole, the book is only mod- 
erately entertaining. Whether it is the ab- 
sence of something in Franklin himself, or 
whether a statesman and a scientist needs a 
different sort of biographer from the gossipy, 
moralizing Weems it is difficult to say, but it 
is clear to the most cursory reading of it that 
the Life of Franklin scarcely escapes medi- 

The Life of Penn is another of Weems' 
less successful works, being merely an en- 
larged moral treatise sprinkled with scanty 
biographical and historical details. It is ob- 
viously intended for the delectation of youth, 
and the reader who finds the prosy anecdotes 


of the youthful Washington unpalatable had 
better not touch the Life of William Penn, 
for a good third of it consists of fatiguing, 
smugly pious dialogue between the boy Penn 
and his mother. Another third is given over 
to moral disquisitions from the mouths of va- 
rious persons, and the rest to more or less 
dependable history and biography. There is 
an appendix of Penn's Maxims. 

The only natural and likable figure in this 
book is the outraged father of the hero. The 
old admiral rages without avail against the 
fanaticism of his son, and one cannot but 
feel sympathy for him in his failure to under- 
stand the peculiarities of the Quaker tempera- 
ment. The scenes between William and the 
sturdy old gentleman are the most interesting 
as they are the best done of any in the book. 

One of his outbursts should be quoted, il- 
lustrating as it does the sane point of view 
of the normally good man. The father is ad- 
juring the son not to throw away his many 
opportunities for worldly advancement by ad- 
hesion to a fanatical sect, and he cries out in 


his bewilderment: " But why, in the name 
of God, can't you be good and happy as a 
great man, as well as a 7nean one; and by 
dressing like a gentleman as well as like a 
monk? Can Tom Loe have made such a 
blockhead of you, as to make you believe it a 
sin to wear a suit of clothes in the fashion? " 
And again: " Can they be such fools as to 
think that religion has anything to do with 
the color and cut of people's clothes? " The 
reader's sympathies throughout the argument 
are undisguisedly with this irate representa- 
tive of unregenerate man. 

The one extenuation for page after page 
of pietistical dialogue is that in their fabrica- 
tion, Weems is intensely in earnest and in- 
tensely anxious to be of service in setting a 
high ideal for American children. When he 
writes in terms of exaggerated tenderness of 
Lady Penn's love and care for her son, one 
feels that he has in mind his own children and 
their upbringing. He was the kindest and 
most devoted of fathers himself, so that when 
his overdone piety fails to touch an answering 


chord, the reader is ready to forgive him, 
knowing the excellence of his intention. 

It would not be justice to Weems to say 
that his Life of Penn is not a good book. It 
is not a good biography for the reason that 
one-half of it is dialogue which had its birth 
in the brain of the author. It is, however, a 
good book, for whenever Weems put his pen 
to paper a certain enthusiasm and zest were 
born which made readable conversations and 
disquisitions which in another writer would be 
" as dry as the remainder biscuit after a voy- 
age.'' In him they are alive in spite of them- 
selves, and once more style has its triumph. 


It Is often said truly that Weems' pam- 
phlets are among the curiosities of American 
literature, but it would be doing their author 
an injustice if anyone were left with the im- 
pression that they were no more than this. 
For in the generation of their birth and great- 
est circulation, these coarse, stinging invectives 
against the grosser vices influenced their read- 
ers to a degree that would have been impos- 
sible of accomplishment in quiet, dignified 
sermons or tracts, in whatsoever trenchant or 
logical form their arguments might have been 
put forth. Contemporary writers allow them 
to have been notable agents for good in the 
hands of the half educated, emotional classes 
to whom their crudity of manner and matter 
was no hindrance to an appreciation of the 
very obvious lesson in the author's mind and 


The earliest of the tracts, and undoubtedly 
a very Interesting one if a copy of it could be 
found, is Onania, the " odd publication " 
which, according to William Duke writing a 
few days after its appearance in June, 1792, 
brought upon its writer " a good deal of ridi- 
cule as well as serious blame." The nature of 
the subject makes discussion of the tract un- 
desirable here, but one can imagine Weems' 
contempt for those who ridiculed him, and 
the indignant sarcasm with which he must 
have answered those who blamed him for his 
plain speaking in the cause of public health 
and morals. He was a hundred years before 
his time in this particular form of endeavor. 

For many reasons, the most remarkable of 
the Weems' pamphlets is that one called 
God's Revenge against Gambling, and this is 
so not because It Is the most flambuoyant and 
lurid of them in design, but rather for the 
contrary reason. It probably lost in effective- 
ness on account of its comparative pallor, but 
this loss was Its gain from a literary stand- 
point. It Is the most finished and pleasing of 


the tractates which claim Weems as their au- 
thor. It is closely reasoned on the purely 
ethical grounds of the gambling question, and 
it contains passages which attain almost to 
nobility of expression. The dialogue, a fa- 
vorite device with Weems, has dramatic 
movement and a certain intensity of feeling. 
Some of the " cases " illustrating the evil re- 
sults of gambling are presented with a pathos 
not devoid of delicacy, a more convincing 
method than the dulling bludgeon strokes 
which follow thick and fast in the form of 
'' cases " in others of the pamphlets. A good 
example of this method occurs in the dialogue 
in which he has been lauding the excellencies 
of a well-known gentleman of Maryland. 
The contrast, of course, is evident mechanism, 
but it is none the less effective for being so. 

" But please to stand by, Mr. Goodloe 
Harper, for here pushes forward a gambler, 
I suppose, but so rumpled and bedirted both 
in hair and hide, that but for his size, I should 
as lieve take him for a mole as a man. Well, 
sir, who are you? " 


" A man, sir." 

" But are you sure of that, sir? for, to be 
candid, you come in so ' questionable a shape ' 
that I am put to a stand." 

'* Yes, I am a Man, or rather a mad-Man. 
I am the thing, sir, they call a gambler." 

'* O ! Well then, sir, go on for heaven's 
sake, for you look full well enough for a 
gambler; please, sir, to go on." 

And with this introduction the unfortunate 
gambler relates with no little effect the story 
of a fall from comfortable circumstances to 
his present sad estate. Of all the sermons 
of Parson Weems which have been preserved, 
this against gambling is the single one that 
has kept its appeal for the more sophisticated 
reader of a later generation. 

In God's Revenge Against Adultery, the 
author writes with some circumstance of the 
errors and punishment of two unhappy 
women, whose names, it is to be hoped, were 
altered before their disgrace was thus adver- 
tised in a pamphlet which had an enormous 
sale in all parts of the country. The practice 


of inculcating virtue by presenting " horrible 
examples " of vice, here reaches the limit of 
its possibilities. The effect is in some measure 
destroyed for the critical reader by the au- 
thor's extravagance, for when he is called 
upon to curse and bewail the villainy of man, 
a greatly different attitude of mind Is Induced 
in him by the bathos of attendant circum- 
stances. This is decidedly the most unpleas- 
ant of his writings but there is no reason for 
doubting the statement that it was the most 
effective of them. 

The Drunkard's Looking Glass, besides 
being a powerful sermon In which John 
Barleycorn is given a sad drubbing, is on 
account of the slang of the period with which 
Its pages are studded, a document of some in- 
terest to the antiquarian. We learn, for in- 
stance, that the equivalents for present-day 
phrases indicative of the stages of intoxica- 
tion were something like these: first, the 
drunkard has a *' drop In his eye," then, he 
becomes " half shaved," and so finally he is 
" quite capsized," or '' snug under the table 


with the dogs." He also becomes " swipy," 
and is " cut," or " cut in the craw.'' This is 
not the only age which revels in nice dis- 
tinctions in the progress of the effects of 
*' Demon Rum." 

There are passages throughout this early 
bit of temperance reform literature which are 
of a degree of coarseness indescribable by 
comparison to anything in printed English. 
The language which from every page cries 
out to one is the sort that may be heard from 
a crew of drunken stevedores in the height of 
their inebriation, and this statement is rather 
rough on the stevedores at that. Weems was 
a close observer of the people with whom his 
roving life threw him in contact, and he has 
here described them so truly that the reader 
is almost convinced of their physical nearness. 
The author's depiction of a man in the " stu- 
pid or torpid stage," with all the loathsome 
consequences, is a wonderful and at the same 
time a disgustingly crude bit of realistic writ- 
ing. So much is this so that in spite of the 
admiration which it compels from the stand- 

TliE ' • 

Drunkard's LooMng- Glass, 



OF ' . ' 



OF THE Many ST" \N(;K C V PKUS \VH1CII HE cdxS ; 


./ "WTien he has only " A DROP IN IIIS EYE,* 

Secnud, ^ ' *>, - ' 


. '.e Thii'df ^ ' , I 

^liTieh hfe is jcetfinpc " A little on ihe Staggers or s^/* ■ 
And fourth and jifih, itnd so on, #% 



" Snu* under the Tiible witJi the Dogs,'* 
Can « Slick to the FLOOR without holMna^ on?^ ^' * ^ 

iiiMhor of the Lrfc of IVashinglon, &* 

■SiHainT i SaWiif I III i\ im,m , ,j ,, mi S S m irm r' i ii i l „ , ' " = 


IPrkt) JSvtitly-Jixe cmt8»} v > 

■ ■ ■ 1813. . .- 





point of literary effect, one does not care to 
read a second time the page which contains it. 

In God's Revenge Against Murder, the evil 
influence of low environment and of the pa- 
rental neglect of children alike conspire to the 
undoing of a young South Carolinian and the 
hapless wife whom he kills with shocking 
brutality. It is like the other pamphlets in 
its description of sordid wretchedness, and 
like them, too, in its undoubted power, but 
except that it possesses some local historical 
interest, there is little more that need be said 
about it. 

The Philanthropist, an olive branch held 
out to opposing " Adamsites and Jefferson- 
ians," has an interest of its own in that it 
has to do with the stirring political questions 
of that day. Its sane treatment of the issues 
won for it a general commendation. God's 
Revenge Against Duelling and the Bad Wife's 
Looking Glass are much of a type with the 
other moral dissertations which have been 

It is a pleasure to turn from these barbaric 


and In the main successful attempts to badger 
people Into an observance of the Decalogue 
to that one of Weems' pamphlets which Is a 
type of his jocularly earnest nature. The 
title, Indicative of Its style and contents. Is 
Hymen's Recruiting Sergeant; or the New 
Matrimonial Tat-too for Old Bachelors. As 
early as 1805 '' we find him suggesting to a 
publisher that a third edition of the pamphlet 
consisting of 1000 copies would be profitable, 
and at as late a date as 1840, new editions 
were being Issued by different publishers In 
various parts of the country. 

In this seriously meant entreaty to the un- 
married to enter upon and enjoy the felicities 
of the " honorable estate," he exhorts In 
humorous fashion the " Citizen Bachelor " to 
find himself a wife, quoting Scripture, para- 
phrasing the Book of Proverbs and calling 
loudly upon Common Sense to support him in 
his crusade against the state of bachelordom. 
The letter dedicatory Is typical of the lively, 

^American Historical Record, vol. 2, Feb. 1873, p. 83. 


almost frolicsome, style of the book, and at 
the risk of taking up too much space It Is 
copied here, for surely there Is nothing In our 
literature quite so curious as this little book. 


" Dear Gentles, I am very clear that 
our Yankee heroes are made of at least, as 
good stuff as any the best of the beef or 
frog-eating gentry on the other side of the 
water. But neither this, nor all our fine 
speeches to our President, nor all his fine 
speeches to us again, will ever save us from 
the British gripe or Carmagnole hug, while 
they can outnumber us, ten to one! No, my 
friends, 'tis population, 'tis population alone, 
can save our bacon. 

List then, ye bach'lors, and ye maidens fair, 

If truly you do love your country dear; 

O, list with rapture to the great decree, 

Which thus in Genesis you all may see : 

'Marry, and raise up soldiers, might and main,' 

Then laugh, you may, at England, France and Spain. 


'^ Wishing you all, the hearing ear — the be- 
lieving heart — and a saving antipathy to apes, 
" I remain yours, dear Gentles, 
" In the bonds of 

" Love and Matrimony, 

" M. L. Weems." 

It is evident that the cry of '* race suicide " 
is as old as the nation. 

Unfortunately, many of the apposite anec- 
dotes and parallels which the author calls to 
his service in this pamphlet are not suitable 
for quotation, and this is not because there is 
any vicious intent in his relation of them, but 
for the reason that for ill or good this age 
has elected to close its ears to frank mention 
of the elemental facts of life. Weems finds 
three prime reasons for matrimony — pleasure, 
rosy health and prosperity, and upon each of 
them he enlarges in a number of delightful 
essays, drawing in high colors the contrast be- 
tween the bachelor's " silent supper," " cold 
sheets " and generally disconsolate condition, 
and the comforts and delights which are the 


lot of the benedict. One may not say which 
is the better reading, Master Burton's melan- 
cholic views on the " miseries of marriage " 
or these '* sweet persuasives to wedlock " of 
good Parson Weems. 

These are the works of the celebrated 
" Parson Weems." '^ We are not troubled 
to find for him a place in the family of Ameri- 
can authors. He is one of those that will not 
exactly fit in with any group of them, whether 
arranged by period, by section or by similarity 
of product. His biographies are read to some 
extent to-day, three generations after his 
death, and it is not unlikely that they will 
continue to be read to a similar extent as long 
as people are interested in the beginnings of 

" For readable accounts of Weems' life, see Duyckink's 
" Cyclopaedia," Arthur P. Gray in Hayden's ** Virginia 
Genealogies," also Hayden in the same work, Ludwig 
Lewisohn in the Charleston News and Courier, August 30, 
1903, and an all too short article, by W. B. Norris, in 
National Magazine, February, 1910. The late Paul Leices- 
ter Ford was, at the time of his death, engaged upon a 
monograph on Weems, which he intended to issue in con- 
nection with his own book, The True George Washington. 


this nation. And if his works were to be 
utterly forgotten, the evidence of his existence 
would still be seen in the legendary history of 
the nation. A great number of the stories of 
the Revolution which to-day are the heritage 
of the American child were, if not actually 
first told by Weems, at least preserved from 
oblivion and sown broadcast in the hearts and 
memories of the people by means of his writ- 
ings. This man wrote the earliest biographies 
of four of the nation's heroes, and wrote them 
so well that he moulded many of the national 
legends; to an age that needed more of his 
kind, he preached virtue and decent living in 
language that gripped and seared and sick- 
ened; and finally after his death himself be- 
came the center of a legend. This is the 
excuse for writing of Mason Locke Weems. 


Adams, John, 22 

Adams, Samuel and John, printers, 

Age of Reason, 47 
All Hallows' Parish, 24, 27, 29, 31, 

All Saints' Parish, 13 
Allen, Mr., 43 
American Prot't Episcopal 

Preacher, 39 
Annapolis, 36, 59 


Bad Wife's Looking Glass, 97 

Beach, The Rev. Abram, 38 

Beaufort, S. O., 55 

Bellas, H. H., 11 

" Belle Air," Prince Wm. Co., 

Va., 40, 55, 56 
Biogrraphies, The, 64 


Cadwaladers, descendants of Wil- 
liamina Wemyss, 12 

Canterbury, Archbishop of, 21, 23, 

Carey, Matthew, 38, 40, 53 

Charieston, S. C, 73 

Cherry Tree anecdote, 6, 65, 67 

Chester, Bishop of, 23, 26 

Claggett, T. J., Bp. of Md., 35, 38 

Coleman, Mr. (the Rev. John), 59 

Corporation for the Relief of Wid- 
ows, etc., 24 

Cowpens, Battle of, 72, 73 

Craik, Dr., 66 


Danish Church, Bishops of, 22 

Danish orders, 23 

Danish minister, 22 

Davis, John, Travels in Amer- 
ica, 30, 43, 45 

Diary of William Duke, 29, 31-34, 
,. 36, 39, 40, 46, 59, 92 

Dunkard's Looking Glass, 55, 95 

Duelling, God's Revenge 
Against, 97 

Duke, The Rev. Wm., 28, 31-34, 36- 

38, 46, 49, 50 
Duke Street Chapel, Westminster, 

Dumfries, Va., 40, 49, 55 

Edinburgh, Univ. of, 16 
Elkton, Md., 36, 37 
Enabling Act, 23 
Ewell, Fanny, 40 
Ewell, Jesse, 40 

Fairfax Court House, 47 
Franklin, Autobiography of, 86, 87 
Franklin, Life of, by M. L. 

Weems, 86, 87 
Franklin, Benjamin, 18, 20, 21, 39, 

86, 87 
Franklin correspondence, 19, 20 
Franklin papers, Calendar of, 16, 


Gambling, God's Revenge 

Against, 92 
Gantt, The Rev. Edward, Jr., 20, 

22, 23, 26 
Goldsboroughs, descendants of 

Williamina Wemyss, 12 

Hague, The, 22 
Harrison, Margaret, 13 
Herring Creek, 11 
Hill, Abell, 13 
Hill, Hester, 13 
Hill, Susannah, 13 
Horry, General Peter, 77-80 
Hymen's Recruiting Sergeant, 

James, St., Parish, 13 
Jenifer, Daniel of St. Thomas, 14 

Lincoln, Abraham, 68 
Locke, Dr. William, 12, 13 



Lodge, Henry Cabot, 69 
London, Bishop of, 23, 25 


Macduff, 12 

Marion, General Francis, 82 

Marion, Life of, by M. L. 

Weems, 62, 77, 78, 80, 81, 85 
Marshall, John, 53, 54 
" Marshall Seat," 11 
" Marshes Seat," 11 
Massey, The Rev. Lee, 67 
Meade, Wm., Bishop of Va., 14, 15, 

45, 46, 49 
" Moore Hall," 12, 38 
Moore, Rebecca, 12 
Moore, William, 12 
Moores, descendants of Williamina 

Wemyss, 12 
" Mt. Vernon," 67 
Mt. Vernon Parish, 41, 43 
Murder, Qod's Revenge 

Against, 97 


Nantes, France, 17 
Negroes, Work among, 30 
North Elk Parish, 36 

Oath of Allegiance, 20 
Onania, 59, 92 

Paine, Tom, 47, 48 

Pamphlets, The, 91 

Parliament of Eng., 23 

Penn, William, 88, 89 

Penn, Admiral, 88 

Penn, Lady, 89 

Penn, Life of, by M. L, Weems, 

87, 88, 90 
Penn's Maxims, 88 
Philadelphia, 37 
Philadelphia, College of, 12 
Philanthropist, The, 59, 60, 97 
Pohick Church, 41, 42, 43 
Protestant Epis. Church, 12, 19 
Protestant Epis. Church in Va., 41 

Revolutionary War, 17 
Reynolds, Harriet, 11 

Ridgeleys, descendants of Wil- 
liamina Wemyss, 12 

Saratoga, Battle of, 75 
Seabury, Samuel, Bishop of Conn., 

20, 24 
Simms, W. G., 77, 78, 80 
Smith, Wm., D. D., 12 
Smiths, descendants of Williamina 

Wemyss, 12 
Swamp Fox (General Marion), 81 

Tarleton, Colonel, 72, 73 
Trinity Church, New York, 38 
Truro Parish, Va., 41 

Upper Marlboro, 34 


Washington, Colonel, 73 

Washington, George, 6, 42, 58, 64, 

Washington, Life of, by Mar- 
shall, 53, 54, 65 

Washington, Life of, by Ram- 
say, 65 

Washington, Life of, by Weems, 
5, 14, 42, 60, 62, 63, 68, 77, 85 

Way to Wealth, 39 

Wayne, Caleb P., 53 

Weems, David, 11, 12, 13 

Weems, David, Jr., 13 

Weems, James, 11, 13 

Weems, Mason Locke: birth, 11; 
early life, 14; medical career, 
16, 18; ordination, 19-26; par- 
ish priest, 28; publishing ven- 
tures, authorship, 38; mar- 
riage, 40; book peddler, 41; 
as a preacher, 44; death, 55; 
author, 57 ; biographical 
works, 65; pamphlets, 91; 
place in literature, 101 

Wemyss, David, 3d Earl of, 11 

Wemyss, Williamina, 11, 12, 13, 38 

Wesley, John, 29, 45 

Westminster Parish, Md., 27, 29, 36 

White, William, Bishop of Penn- 
sylvania, 24 

Wilmington, Del., 37 

" Wood Yard," 38 

rO'=^^ ^? ^,::) "V